Our six-man squad was issued a map, compass, flashlight, and a canteen of water then dropped off in the middle of nowhere. We had to travel ten klicks, undetected, through woods, swamp, and river, all crawling with the enemy. If caught, we’d be sent to a P.O.W. camp, where we would be questioned and tortured. The torture part, I hoped, was added to scare us, but we couldn’t be too sure since our Vietnamese buddies helped construct an authentic NVA prison and would be undergoing all the questioning.
We huddled in the dark around the map, I had laid out flat on the ground. I risked turning on the flashlight so we could plot our course. The woods were too wide to go around, but we might be able to skirt the swamp. Crossing the single bridge over the river at the finish line was where we stood the greatest chance of getting nabbed–if we managed to make it that far.
I checked the compass, turned off the flashlight, folded the map, and stuffed it inside my shirt. Without the moon, we strained to see as we moved single file through the forest with Sam on point. We tried to be quiet, but a twig cracked or leaves rustled, with practically every step. The night air smelled musty and mysterious.
I whispered up the line. “Keep alert for anything that moves.”
Every shadow contained a potential ambush. We strained to hear anything that might give us a few seconds warning. Forty meters to our right, bright lights mounted in the trees came on, turning night into day. Simultaneously, lots of shouting and AK-47s being fired broke out all around us. We froze–then dropped to the ground, hoping we hadn’t been seen.
Several of the training cadre dressed as Viet Cong had their weapons pointed at two other six-man squads. They yelled, “Put your hands behind your head and drop to the ground.” When one of our guys moved too slowly, he got hit with the butt of a rifle in the middle of his back. The man cried out in pain. Shit, I thought, these guys aren’t messing around.
The trainers put a thick stick through each prisoner’s arms, tied their hands with rope and threw them in the back of a truck. Two of the armed VC jumped in as guards. As soon as the truck drove out of sight, the remaining Viet Cong cadre turned off the bright lights and once again plunged us into darkness.
We remained perfectly still until I figured it was safe, luckily missing the first capture point. I low crawled over to Sam. “Let’s go.”
Twenty minutes later, I halted the team to check the map again. “It looks like they are herding us into established ambushes that have been set up along the easiest route to safety. That’s why those guys following the road got nailed back there.”
“Yeah,” said Sam. “They hit that guy hard.”
I replied, “Exactly. So, unless we want the same treatment, we need to go where they least expect it …which means through the swamp and swimming the river.”
Sam looked at me askance. “You want to go through a swamp at night with no lights?”
“You want to be caught?” Nobody did.
I led the team away from the path that circled the swamp to the west. Just as we reached the edge of the large quagmire, more bright lights, shooting and shouting happened right where we would have been, had we not changed direction. “Good call, Eli,” said Sam.
Looking at the creepy morass ahead of us, I didn’t exactly relish going into the goop, but couldn’t think of a safe alternative. “Anybody know if there are alligators in this part of Georgia?”
One team member said, “Oh yeah, and lots of poisonous snakes too.”
I shook my head. “There has to be a better way. Spread out and find another trail.”
Sam returned in a few minutes. “Come over here. I think I found something.” He pushed aside a pile of sticks and brush covering a flat bottom skiff, complete with oars. When a teammate started to climb in, I grabbed him by the arm. “Wait. Check for booby traps.”
We found and disconnected two trip wires attached to the boat oars. One wire had been hooked to a power switch and a series of four lights mounted in a nearby cypress tree. The second wire disappeared into the dirt. We carefully dug up a buried satchel charge and took it along in case we needed it later.
The swamp, thick with vegetation, contained a myriad of twists, turns, and dead ends. Animal cries in the dark didn’t sound very friendly and the many swirls in the water next to the boat likely hid unwanted slimy creatures making their way through the water just below the plant life on the surface. We would never have made it through on foot. Finally, after a lot of rowing, and use of our faithful compass, the cypress trees started to thin. Up ahead I could make out the bridge from the several bright lights mounted on the structure. A dirt road lay between the edge of the swamp and a six-foot high levee that ran parallel to the river. Three enemy soldiers were posted on the bridge making it impossible to cross from the swamp to the river without being spotted.
We sat in the safety of the swamp shadows and pondered our fate. “What are we going to do Eli?” asked Sam. The others looked my way as well. “I don’t know. Anybody have any ideas, besides suicide or surrender? We could try a diversion, but that means one of us would have to be sacrificed.”
The image of the gun-butted officer candidate remained fresh in my mind. If capture got that rough, what would prison camp be like? Nobody spoke for several minutes. I sighed. “You talked me into it. Give me the explosives and a ten-minute head start. When you hear a big bang, pick up the boat, scale the levee, and into the river as fast as you can, then row like hell.”
“Are you sure, Eli?” asked Sam.
“No, but before I chicken out…hand me the satchel charge. Wait for my signal before you scale the levee.”
I worked my way along the dark edge of the swamp. My plan was to blow the explosive, distract the lookouts, give my team a chance to escape, and by some miracle run across the bridge to safety. It could work.
The soldiers never took their eyes off the path or the road. So, I grabbed a good-sized rock and gave it a heave into some heavy brush near the swamp path. The distraction gave me enough time to scurry unseen across the road and under the bridge. I held my breath.
No reaction, so I hooked up the satchel charge wires to a detonator, stood as far away as I could and pushed down the plunger–BOOM! A soldier yelled and there was the clatter of boots running overhead. I wondered which side the enemy would pick to come after me. When the first soldier rounded the bridge support to the west, I ran the opposite way. When I got to the top, one of the soldiers had remained. But, he was leaning over the rail, looking at the action below and didn’t hear me coming. I shoved him off the bridge, waiting until he safely splashed into the river below and then started running toward the far side at top speed. It looked like I was going to make it when three new soldiers appeared on the bridge in front of me. The trainers I had eluded previously had already recovered and were now standing behind me. I was trapped.
I braced myself for a beating, as the tallest enemy soldier walked up to me. “Are you the one who set off the explosion?” I cautiously lowered my arms protecting my head and nodded. “That was really cool, man. You scared the shit out of those guys. They must have jumped a foot. Where’s the rest of your squad?”
“Safe and sound, I hope. They were crossing the river while you were chasing me.”
“No shit! You guys found the boat and disarmed the trip wires? So, that’s where you got the explosives. You’re the first squad to ever make it this far.”
“You mean nobody wins?”
“The course is designed to catch the candidates and send them to the prison camp. And I’m afraid that’s where I have to take your squad, even if you did successfully complete the assignment. But, I’m going to make sure you receive top marks, maybe even a weekend pass.”
They escorted me to a waiting truck. I climbed in the back with the training staff. They told me the other five candidate squads had already been caught, so they were shutting things down on the course. They found my squad hiding in the bushes a hundred yards from the bridge. “Did we make it?” Sam asked hopefully.
I answered. “The good news is we made it further than any other candidate team and might earn a weekend pass.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“We are still going to be tortured.”
We rode in silence for twenty minutes over bumpy roads, until we reached the compound, a twenty-foot, wooden stockade wall with sharpened points, intertwined with barbed wire. The place was ablaze with lights with mounted guns in each corner guard tower. The tall VC soldier warned us before got out of the truck. “We all have to play our part here, so just along with it, okay?”
Our captor banged on the gate. “Open up, we’ve got more prisoners.” As soon as we were inside, more training cadre guards in VC costumes started shoving us around, while cursing, “Swine Americans,” and “dirty imperialists.”
The Vietnamese officer candidates added a certain realism to the exercise, but our buddies at the moment did not look too friendly. Le Huu Duc, a quiet, introspective candidate, now wearing an NVA (North Vietnamese Army) uniform, turned loud and mean. “Why are these prisoners not bound?” He demanded.
The capturing officer explained. “They were the last ones caught, sir, and we did not want to delay longer than necessary getting them to you for questioning.” Officer Duc, seemed to accept this answer. “Put them in the holding pen.”
We were shoved into a fenced area with several other candidates, including my buddy, Steve, who apparently had been assigned to pick blades of grass while on his hands and knees. “Steve,” I called out and promptly received a rifle butt from one of the guards. “No talking.” I restrained from taking a swing at the guy.
Facing away from the guards, I whispered, “Why in the hell are you picking grass?” Steve, without looking up, answered, “It’s part of the punishment. Whatever you do don’t tell them anything when they interrogate you.” I leaned down. “Thanks for the tip.” The same nasty VC threatened me again with his rifle butt. “Get away from the other prisoner, he is being punished.” I backed off.
Sam covered his mouth as if coughing. “Can you believe this shit?”
Before long a new guard approached. “Follow me.” As we walked, I noted the compound was divided into four main areas of activity with screams coming from everywhere except the holding pen. Armed guards roamed everywhere. Escape looked impossible.
We reached the command tent located in the center of the prison. The guard shoved me inside. With only a small lamp as a light source, it took a second for my eyes to adjust. Commander Le Huu Duc sat behind a table appearing very authentic dressed in an NVA cream-colored officer’s uniform, complete with medals pinned over the right breast pocket and gold braids on both shoulders. Guard on both sides, each held a rifle and stared straight ahead.
My cadre companion pushed down on my shoulder and told me to kneel in front of the supreme commander. When I resisted, he hit me with his rifle behind the knees, catching me off guard, and down I went. “Watch it, asshole.” For my remark, he slapped the back of my head hard enough to knock me on my face.
Duc said, “Enough! We’re not barbarians. Answer questions, then we give you a hot meal and sleep.” I realized how late it had become and how tired I felt, so what Le Huu proposed sounded tempting. “We know you are a spy and we can shoot you anytime. Understood?”
I was in no mood to dick around. “Whatever, pal.”
“What is your unit and where are you based?”
“Mickey Mouse and Disneyland…in that order.”
“How many men are in your company and types of weapons?”
“Well, me, Goofy, Donald, and Minnie, oh wait, she’s a girl…you only wanted men. Weapons-wise, I think Goofy has a slingshot, but I’m not sure.”
“Think you funny, spy? Maybe need convincing?”
“Hit me with your best shot, doorman, and then call me a cab, so I can get the hell out of this place.” I got rewarded with another smack to the back of the head.
Commander Duc, red in the face, leaped to his feet and shouted. “Take this filthy pig to the triangle!” The “triangle” didn’t sound too bad; maybe they wanted me in their orchestra?
The cadre guard grabbed my collar and dragged me backward to an odd device consisting of two poles, a rope between them, as well as a triangular metal bar connected to a handle, so it could be rotated. I was ordered to roll up my pant legs and kneel on the bar while holding onto the overhead rope. But the rope had been mounted so high that you had to practically do a chin-up if you didn’t want your body weight resting on the bar. Starting on the flat side, the guard rotated the instrument to a point right against my shins where the bone is closest to the skin’s surface. I held my weight as long as I could, while the guard spit on me, threw dirt in my face and said nasty things about my mother.
Finally, with my arms aching, I had to relax. Most of my weight now rested on the point of the triangle. What started out as extremely painful got worse when they rotated the handle. The triangular bar alternated between point and flat working its way down my shin from the knee to the ankle. My eyes were tearing, but I refused to cry out. When he reached the ankle, the guard began rolling the triangle back toward the knee. I tried to pull myself up again, but no strength remained in my arms. After the guard reversed his direction for the third time, I’d had it and told him so. He helped me down. Both my legs were bleeding. I hobbled into the command tent and faced Commander Duc. He gave me a creepy smile. “You ready to cooperate?”
“I’ve always thought of myself as cooperative.” I wanted to keep him talking to allow the pain in my shins to subside.
“Good. Now, name of unit, how many men and where is located? No one will think less of you for giving me such unimportant information.”
“No problem, doc. My unit is Loony Toons, with Elmer Fudd, Tasmanian Devil, Roadrunner, Wiley E. Coyote, and a few others. We all hang out at Warner Brothers in L.A.”
“What is this nonsense? Think you can mess with me? Guards, take him to apache pole and then the pit.”
“Couldn’t I just go pick grass? I’ll make you a nice green salad. Remember pal, this is just training.”
Once again they dragged me out after another smack in the head. The guard took a second swing at me, but I ducked and laughed, and then paid for my insolence with a rifle butt to the ribs. I was becoming really pissed off.
He ordered me to hug the Apache pole “backward,” while lashing my wrists and ankles with braided ropes until I resembled a human sail. I don’t normally bend that way, which strained my sore muscles even further. The guard smiled as he walked behind me and suddenly shoved down on my shoulders. I let out an involuntary cry and swore my back crack.
“Now do you have something to say?”
I bit down on my lip. “Yeah, check if my cab is here yet. I’m ready to leave.” He punched me in the gut. “You wouldn’t try that if my hands were untied.”
“Oh yeah,” said the big guy, freeing me. I struggled to my feet. He got right in my face, “So, what are you going to do about it, punk?”
This “training” exercise had gone too far and I didn’t want to play anymore. I brought my knee up into the man’s groin. When he doubled over in pain, I grabbed his hair and slammed his head into my other upcoming knee, hearing the satisfying crunch of his nose breaking. As he bounced off my knee, I doubled both fists and with all my remaining strength hit him with a huge uppercut. He landed with a thud on his back in the dirt–out cold. I ran toward the gate and had it half opened when four more guards grabbed me and dragged back inside.
They carried me kicking and cursing to the pit, which turned out to be full-length wall locker buried three feet in the ground. They threw me in unceremoniously on my back, which still smarted from the apache pole. I cried out in pain, but they slammed the metal door shut and locked it with a loud click.
My narrow container didn’t allow me to turn over, even if I wanted to. The only light came from three slits in the door near my face. Squinting through the opening, I could just make out the angry guards standing around the hole, staring down at me. Commander Duc gave an order in Vietnamese. Had I done something to offend him back at 62nd Company?
Next I heard a scraping sound, and then a soft thud on the locker door. The sound repeated itself, followed by another. Dirt trickled through the slits and landed on my face. I’m not normally claustrophobic but started to sweat. I yelled. “Hey guys, we’re on the same team here.”
Before long total darkness enveloped me and I found it difficult to breathe. Pressed up against the cold, hard metal, my back started to throb. My last conscious thought before passing out, “I’ve been buried alive.”
Want to read more? #amazon reviews welcome